crosswords

I love crossword puzzles. My friend Kathy Fernandes got me hooked way back in 1978. Ever since then they have served as faithful touchstones in my daily life. The Daily Texan, the Houston Chronicle, Austin-American Statesman, Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, Winston-Salem Journal, Raleigh News and Observer,  the Rocky Mountain News and Denver Post, for years I worked the crossword in the paper we got wherever we lived.

I remember grabbing the Daily Texan as soon as I got on campus and sitting in the Student Union before classes. I remember working them in the evening the years before Katie. I remember working them while Katie napped on my lap. Later, she tells me that one of her earliest memories is “shhh, mommy’s working the crossword.” Since going online, it’s my early morning ritual with classical music and a cup of decaf (an early sign that I’m getting old, someday I’ll work the crossword with gruel dribbling down my hairy chin).

When paper newspapers became too expensive, I switched to working crosswords online. I subscribe to the NYTimes and Washington Post and work their daily crosswords. On weekdays both puzzles generally take me less than 15 minutes. Monday through Thursday, I race the clock, trying to get each one done in less than five minutes. I often don’t read most of the clues, just start filling in either across or down. Fridays are more difficult. Saturdays are the hardest, and sometimes, maybe once or twice a month, I look up clues online. Sunday puzzles have themes and tricks: rebuses, puns, quotes, tricks, or circles with additional clues and/or words.

One of the most important things crosswords do for me is give my days structure. The schedule changes, the habit does not. If I can’t work one, there is a sense that the day is not complete. When I was at my sickest, working the crossword became an accurate barometer of my neurological state on any given day. It still is, although the difference is much subtler, a matter of grasping for a word for a bit longer.

Lately I’ve added la crucigrama de El País. For those of you who don’t know, I’ve been learning Spanish. I am now at the intermediate level, a bumbling high school junior at the end of her second year of Spanish. Those early puzzles were terribly hard at the beginning. They are still hard. Armed with my dictionary, I painstakingly try to solve the clues. If I can’t get the whole word (hint for Spanish puzzlers, a lot of words start and end with “a” or “o”), I resort to clicking letters on the keyboard using the Wheel of Fortune strategy (a,e,i,o,u,r,s,t,d,p,l,m,m,b,c). Finally, in frustration I tap every other letter until I get the right one. As my Spanish has improved, so have my skills. It’s interesting to see that the creators use some of the same tricks in Spanish puzzles that English creators use, like the ones listed above. The El País puzzle creator has a fondness for clues that shorten the given word ( ¿Asombroso? muy poco.) They also have filler words, the ones that all puzzlers know because they have the right combinations of letters, like “oreo” in English puzzles. These take me around a half an hour after four months of hard work. I believe they are increasing my Spanish language skills, forcing me to learn context, grammar, and usage.

I love almost all word games, but many of them involve other people. The beauty of crosswords is that they can be a solitary habit at one’s convenience or a group effort. We used to have crosswords laying around on beach vacations, someone filling in some of the clues, someone else filling in others. I get texts from friends who crossword, asking about a clue or a theme.  I’m sure there is a much broader community that I could be a part of if I wanted to. However, I fall more into the solitary camp. It’s not a competition in that respect. It’s more of the quiet satisfaction of completion.

In Atul Gawande’s book “Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters In the End“, he posits a theory that is eminently sensible to me. As people age and grow feeble, we should be asking them do what they do that makes life matter to them. It could be as simple as enjoying a bowl of ice cream while watching a ball game. When these things are no longer feasible, the person has most likely reached the point where they no longer wish to live. I’ve often wondered what my answer would be and haven’t come up with anything. After writing this blog, I realize it is my classical music/coffee/crossword ritual. When I can no longer enjoy it, I will have ceased to enjoy living.

Rather than being morbid, I find  knowing this baseline comfortable. As I grow older, where I live and how I live will change. The when and how may change (I may go back to pen and paper, perhaps, or start working them after my nap), but the ritual of settling in to solve a word puzzle will not. For what it’s worth, I see many more years spent happily puzzling, but, like a dog who stops wanting to take walks, the day I don’t feel like doing them anymore will be my signal that I am ready. Oh, today marks a change in music. From Thanksgiving until New Year’s, I listen to Christmas music. The ritual goes on.

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the future

I’m at an age where I’m thinking hard about what I want out of the backend of my life. Moving has only heightened the scrutiny, and the process is not one that lends itself to definitive answers. For some people that isn’t the case. They will stay where they are, basking in post-retirement bliss in a home they’ve paid off with kids and grandkids (and some with great-grandkids!)all living nearby. That’s supposed to be the dream, right? Not for all of us.

Dreams have a way of changing, or at least mine have. There was a time in my life where that sounded pretty good to me. I think it changed when Katie was twelve or thirteen. I’m not sure why, other than I was unhappily married with a daughter who adamantly insisted she was never going to have kids. At the time, I thought it was all a phase. Still, the seeds of change had been planted. As the years went on, I got divorced. Katie never changed from not wanting kids. I went to graduate school for writing (a big change in and of itself) and I got Lyme disease.

All future thought was on hold at my sickest. For six years, I thought of nothing beyond surviving through another year. Now that I am definitely “stable” (meaning  a random pattern of wellness punctuated by relapses), I think about the future. What do want to do with myself? I made a list:

  • Torture my dad with my presence for his remaining years (who am I kidding? Dad an Keith Richards will be here long after I’m gone. They’ll dance on my grave.).
  • Take care of myself. This includes having the time/energy to work out, cook, go to movies, have adventures with friends. It also includes lots of down time to relapse without feeling guilty.
  • Travel. I want the time and money to go see friends, to travel to Paris, or Palm Springs, or wherever to watch tennis, and to go and see the world. I may even spend time living in one of the places  part time.
  • Have a home base in Denver with Katie.
  • Write, write, write.

I suppose I’ll do all of this as long as I can and see where I end up. Ultimately, I’ll end up dead, of course, but that shouldn’t keep me from planning the future. If the present is any indication, I’ll be with Katie permanently at some point, subject to being “taken care of” by my daughter. As long as I don’t kick up too much of a fuss, I should be good there.

Some people might be shaking their heads at the things on my list, or the inclusion of Katie in my future. I’ve long given up on what people think of my relationship with Katie. I’ve pretty much given up on what people think of my choices in general. But the stuff with Katie goes waaaaay back. She established her “difficult child” bona fides by the age of three. I got plenty of advice over the years on how to deal with her, mostly from people who didn’t have a child like Katie. Don’t ask me how or why some of us end up with children who can’t or won’t conform to what an ideal child should be. A child who doesn’t care about pleasing you, or is simply different. Rather, ask me what to do about it, because unconventional children require unconventional answers. At her worst, I worried if she would want to live. At that point, making her to do dishes or go to school seemed pointless. My decision to let go of all those preconceived “shoulds” and “ought tos” ultimately proved to be right for us.

I still didn’t trust my intuition about other decisions, even though I knew deep in my bones that I was doing the right things with Katie.  We joke about our entwined futures, but neither of us envision future plans without each other in some form or fashion. For us, the immediate future holds a flip: I’ll be the one coming and going and making the home will fall on her shoulders. My gut tells me this is exactly what I need—what we both need—but I’m still settling into this decision.

Really, it wasn’t until Lyme that I have learned that I DO know what is right for me and sometimes those around me, often before I’ve weighed all the pros and cons. Interesting, isn’t it, that it took serious illness that completely shook me to my core to realize that.

Knowing intuitively what is best for me and actually doing it are different things. Nothing about planning a future is easy, even when you’re older. The process of stripping my life down to the essentials induces something akin to pure panic sometimes. Letting go of anchors like possessions and places may leave me feeling unmoored, adrift in a new sea that has tides and waves I’m not ready for. However, it is better than being anchored by those same things, firmly grounded where I don’t want to be, held down by them instead of freed. It’s time to let go and trust that I am more than things, and that Katie is perfectly capable and more than ready to create a home that also has a place for me, just as I have done for her.

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restless

I’ve moved enough times that there is a rhythm to each move. There’s the relief of deciding to sell the home and move. Then the flurry of activity necessary to get the house ready for selling. I had a head start on this house, because before COVID I had considered selling and got rid of a bunch of stuff. That was a great help. After that, there is the wait for someone to buy.

That’s where the rhythm sped up. I’ve never sold a home in a market like this one. It sold in three days. We only had one bid but it was the right one. Our realtor wisely negotiated for a sixty day close and an additional sixty day leaseback. Because the corollary for a hot seller’s market is a tough buyer’s market.

I really like our realtor. I hav known him for seven or eight years through swimming. He is a good swimmer, and I either swam a few lanes over in a slower lane or was lifeguarding while he swam. Showing up at a pool at 5 am, sleep tousled and in a bathing suit to voluntarily swim a few miles tells me a lot about a person. That’s how I knew he was a realtor, and it’s also how I knew I could trust him to be reliable and trustworthy.

I think it takes a certain type of personality to be a great realtor. You’re not so much as selling something as guiding someone through one of the most purchases most of us ever make. You have to get to know what the person wants, yet make it clear what they can have. You have to explain strategies and pitfalls and advantages and all sorts of terms. My daughter is a virgin home buyer, so a large part of our realtor’s job is to explain the whole process to her. Our realtor is pathologically cheerful and patient, and has done all of the above, and more.

So we have a contract. I’m working on all the problems of making repairs, which is always a hassle and has its own peculiar rhythm. In fact, everything about a move is a “hurry up and wait” kind of motion. Some days are spent worrying if you’ve done the right thing and other days are seemingly consumed in a flash with phone calls, appointments, and paperwork. If I add watching the Olympics or writing into the mix, it makes getting anything else done extremely difficult.

What I’ve discovered about myself is that I can no longer juggle multiple things and push through a hectic day without paying the price. I lose my train of thought on one thing when I’m interrupted and can’t get back on track. I fall asleep at eight pm and sleep until six but I don’t feel rested. What level of stress can I handle now? I guess I won’t know until I’ve tested the limits, and this move is proving to be the perfect situation.

I miss the rush of having a jam-packed day of chaos and knowing that I dealt with all of it. Katie and I were talking about the time she went back to her second semester of school in January 2005 and discovered that Pikes Peak Community College had a Zookeeping degree program. This was what she had been looking for. She withdrew from Mesa State, I came and got her, we drove to Colorado Springs, enrolled her in the program, found an apartment and moved her all within three days. I doubt I could do that now.

When we moved to this house I got the house in Evergreen ready between December twentieth and January fifth. Katie and I packed over 85 boxes. I also found a new house all before I left for Bennington, VT on January thirteenth for my first term of graduate school. I was still negotiating the contract on the shuttle bus from Albany to Bennington. When I returned ten days later, I had seven days to finish packing, close on both houses, hire movers, and move in February second. I know I couldn’t do that now.

This move is dragging out, though, because of the craziness of the market. I have started thinking about packing, but it’s too soon. Besides, I am getting rid of at least half of my stuff, maybe more. But that depends on where we move and how much space I will have and how much space Katie will have. Because this will be primarily her space, not mine. I’ll be a co-owner but not here for the day-to-day living. I’ll be in Tucson for a while, then I’ll be all over the place, I hope. Eventually I hope to live somewhere outside of the US for six months each year and travel to see friends/tennis tournaments/for pleasure for weeks at a time. It’s funny, that doesn’t seem daunting at all. Because I will have total control of my travel times, recovery times, and when I come and go. I won’t have to clean the house, or do yard work, or deal with all the everyday things that sap my energy.

The end result of all the chaos of downsizing my world will be worth it, though. A much smaller property which means much less upkeep. I’ll have a co-owner I can trust who happens to be my daughter. She is thrilled to finally be a property owner. A smaller payment, which means more money for living. And lastly, a great shedding of things from a former life. Time will tell if that will be liberating.

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Judgy

I try mightily not to be judgmental. In the effort to put myself in someone else’s shoes, I fail most miserably with myself. Some of the ridiculous judgements I make (only with myself): should you be doing this? Why aren’t you doing that? Do you really feel that bad? You’re just being [lazy, a drama queen, too soft, too hard, not serious enough, too serious] and more, every permutation a judgment on me.

It’s hard not to do this when you’re always navigating a chronic illness. Chronic illnesses like Lyme are floaty ephemeral things, randomly disrupting your life in dozens of ways. That makes it less real and concrete, unlike, say, arthritis, or diabetes, or an illness like cancer. In these illnesses,  the causes of those diseases are measurable by tests and the core symptoms never shape-shift and morph on a whim.

And Lyme, along with its co-infections, may be chronic, but it is mostly—and I fucking hate this word— manageable. And so I judge. I look at people I know who have far deadlier and scarier challenges than Lyme and all of a sudden my ability to see things as they are for me vanishes.

When I get in a judgmental funk, I often second-guess what other people are thinking. ‘Well, she was able to [swim, hike, write, clean, cook, shop] so she can’t feel that bad,’ ‘She was fine yesterday. How can she be sick today?’ Maybe they don’t think any of these things, but I think they do. I tell my self to stop it, but I don’t listen when I’m in this kind of mood. Like an overtired toddler, once I’m wound up, I can’t unwind.

I tend to second-guess myself, too. At least twice a week for the past six years, I wonder if I really have Lyme. I wonder if I am relapsing at all. You’ve felt pretty good for the past <day, week, month> my brains says. You’re probably not sick at all anymore, just goldbricking. Cool etymology, goldbricking. Look it up.

That’s when I catalog my current symptoms, the ones that make me doubt everything. Yet, they are the realest part of all. They may not operate on a schedule, but an aching liver, shooting pains in my teeth, a neck ache, sore feet, and muscle pains are concrete, solid things that, as much as I deny them, cannot be denied. Stoicism does not equal wellness. The other symptoms, like fatigue, or when I forget dad’s phone number and address, or what day it is, are much easier to judge as non-worthy symptoms of illness.

And so I scrutinize, picking at myself relentlessly. It starts from the moment I wake up and assess how I’m feeling. How bad is that headache I ask myself. Bad enough to not walk? You have to walk. I suppose if I am being generous with myself, I’d say that this state actually gets me to do things, regardless of how I’m feeling. I almost always begin the day charging hard, getting up early and getting as much done as I can. That’s because it could all grind to a halt at some point in the day. I’m okay with that if I’ve managed to accomplish a few things before the crash.

This has been workable during COVID. We all seem to have had a collective fever dream where ordinary life has hung suspended from the pandemic. Being judgmental took a vacation as we struggled to deal with isolation and fear.

Now that most people’s lives are slowly returning to ‘normal’, I’m certain that the critical cacophony in my head will increase in direct proportion to my perception that everyone else is moving on. And I will respond with the urge that I have to work harder and do more, an insane reaction when I think about it. But that’s just it, isn’t it? My brain becoming mushy with a relapse, my body betraying me once again. I’ll obsess about lottery tickets, fight the feeling that I am running out of time (for what, I don’t know), and worry that I need to write and do things to prove I am worthy, even while I am sick.

My therapist tells me things like, ‘be kind to yourself’, and ‘give yourself some credit’. Easier said than done. I don’t know why I’m harder on myself than on anyone else. If I knew me, I’d think I was handling a shitty hand pretty damn well. Maybe I’m harder on me because I do know me: my foibles, weaknesses, and bad habits. Lyme has a way of exacerbating the bad parts of me and obscuring the good parts. I need to keep working on things that matter to me because I want to, not because I’m struggling to define my self-worth outside of being a chronically ill person.

I have a feeling this is going to take some time. I’ll probably stomp around on my walks muttering to myself, trying to figure out how to accept that who I am is not defined by my illness, nor is it defined by how hard I work to show that I am not ill. It’s a stupid conundrum that is self-created. It will become one of those opportunities for growth that I have come to loathe.

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Even keel

I love the etymology of words and phrases. Yesterday, I wanted to say “on an even keel” in Spanish and struggled to explain what that meant. Two of the students are men in their twenties, and the instructor is a Puerto Rican woman in her twenties. Idioms are lost on younger people now (not all, I’m not trying to start a generation war). Many idioms endured for centuries, but the context has been lost. Not so for “on an even keel.” Boats still have keels, and sailors like them to stay even.

These days my goal is to stay on an even keel. That means different things to different people. When I was young, I didn’t know my mom’s devotion to order and structure kept our house on calm seas until I was older. All I knew was that when I left home at 17, my life was most definitely not on an even keel for a long time, both physically and mentally. It was difficult for me to figure out what I needed to have that sense of balance and stability.

College was one big choppy chaos. I moved often, had no firm schedule, and didn’t care. However, as school came to a close, I looked for a way out of that chaos, and chose marriage. I don’t know why I didn’t have the cojones to forge out on my own, but I didn’t, not back then. I think I wanted to be rescued, or share the burden, or some such nonsense. Of course, this did nothing but add more chaos. I don’t think I felt on an even keel until Katie was born. A newborn baby is hardly an even keel, but for me it was the first true source of stability in my soul.

Over the next years, I discovered how to create my own calm seas, both for Katie and myself. I learned that for me, making a home went a long way towards alleviating chaos and stress. Inside, though, I was still not on an even keel. I was constantly fiddling about in a vain attempt to make someone else happy. It wasn’t until I divorced that I realized I’d been off course for years and years and years.

Even after I got Lyme and was terribly ill, I felt more at peace than I had in the last thirty-five years. I think many times people mistake (or hope) that having things, or having a busy, scheduled life is the same as being on an even keel inside. They usually aren’t, as I suspect many people learned after this long year of COVID. Inner turmoil and unhappiness will find a way to burst forth, and if there is no deeper sense of balance and happiness, things can go south in an instant. BTW, “go south” is an interesting saying, with no clear source. Could be from Native American’s euphemism that to “go south” is to die, or from the notion that if you committed a crime in the 1800s, you could escape the consequences by “going south” and crossing the border into Mexico.

For me, Lyme gave me stability. I had no other choice, but it’s true. I had to find a balance to give myself any kind of life. A funny thing about a chronic illness: any pretense is stripped away, and if you don’t like what you see, you’ll never be on an even keel. I’ve worked extremely hard to figure out what makes me happy, what I can live with, and what I can change.

Your balance might look entirely different. I’ve known people who thrive on pressure and constant change. I’ve known people who have everything going for them and are never in balance. Being on an even keel doesn’t mean everything in your life is going well. It means you’ve gotten your boat in tiptop shape, you’ve learned how to navigate rough water, and you manage to keep your boat relatively stable, at least until you it calm waters once again.

Now that I have that straight in my mind, I can weather any storm. I can even find contentment where others would see nothing but a big old storm bearing down on them, with no chance of not capsizing.

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bowling pins

Lately I’ve been looking at my life as a set of bowling pins. The bowler is life, and when all ten pins are gone, the show is over. I like the bowling pin analogy, because when one pin goes, it tends to knock down the other pins. If the ball strikes hard enough at the right spot, a lot of them topple. Many people go a long time without having any pins knocked over. Their bowler tends to roll a lot of gutter balls, or the kind of rolls that make the pins wobble without falling down. My bowler came out with a wicked spin before I was even born, knocking out the head pin. I’ve managed to reset the adoption pin over and over throughout my life, relegating it farther to the back. The knowledge of being unwanted when I was born has become easier to bear as I’ve gotten older.

At the age of seven, my bowler knocked down about eight pins when I fell out of a tree and fractured my skull.  I managed to reset those pins when I came out of a coma with only the loss of hearing in my left ear.

After that, the bowler messed around for a good long time, knocking down a few pins here and there. Then I don’t know what happened, maybe the bowler took some lessons or something, because at twenty-one I was diagnosed with endometriosis. That knocked down three or four pins with every surgery and every new treatment, until I had all the lady parts taken out. The last surgery was when I was 42.

At each juncture, I was able to reset almost all my pins. By the time I got Lyme, I’d say I was at eight pins, ten being perfect health/life, and zero pins being, well, dead. Since then, Lyme has been the number one pin, with a shifting cast of health problems behind. I’ve started re-reading Dr. Richard Horowitz’s “Why Can’t I Get Better? Solving the Mystery of Lyme & Chronic Disease.” Not a very exciting title, but it’s jam-packed with information. Aside from bartonella, most of my miseries are the secondary infections and inflictions brought on by an immunocompromised body. Dr. Horowitz calls this ‘MSIDS’, or ‘Multiple Systemic Infectious Disease Syndrome’. Quite a mouthful for what is essentially a pretty easy concept to get. He believes that diseases like Lyme open the door for  parasitic or fungal infections, allergies, environmental toxicity, compromised immune function, and many others.

I’ve had all of these, labelled on the pins behind Lyme for varying periods of time. The grossest one wasn’t parasites, although that was definitely an experience. Note to all of you: deworming is not fun. No, the one that made me gag (literally) was thrush. My tongue and mouth were coated furry white with fungus. Most disgusting thing I’ve seen on my body. At my worst, I’d say Lyme and all of its shitty friends had me down to about four pins. I’ve reset many times in the last six years, although the amount of upright pins has dwindled to seven, maybe eight or so on my best days. That’s because I’m never completely well. There’s always some niggling symptom or problem.

The newest pin behind Lyme is not technically new. It’s a new name for a bunch of unexplained problems I’ve had since my early thirties, about the time I had my eighth surgery. I itch when I exercise. I’ve had an unexplained cough for over twenty years. I have random allergies, most definitely not seasonal, and sometimes I wheeze when I cough. I don’t know what it was, or is. The symptoms come and go, and have never been bad enough to incapacitate me. However, after I had the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, I had itchy, watery eyes, blurred vision, headaches, and itchiness over my body, plus a wheezing cough.

I read something on a Lyme forum about a ‘mast-cell storm’ after a Lyme sufferer had their COVID vaccine. This meant their immune system overreacted to the vaccine. At any rate, to calm a mast cell flare, doctors recommend using H1 and H2 histamine blockers. Sounded complicated, until I read more. Zyrtec and Claritin are H1 histamine antagonists. Tagamet, Pepcid, and Prilosec are H2 histamine antagonists. I was so miserable I bought some of both and took them. Within two days I felt much better, and I mean much better in general.

Is this mast cell storm a one-time thing, or something else? The information is, like Lyme, all over the place. Yes, it’s a real thing, called “Mast Cell Activation Syndrome,” or MCAS. And yes, there is a Lyme connection. But for me, these two little pills made a difference in those other problems I’d had for years. I’ll bring it up with my LLMD on my next visit to see if he’s had other patients with this.

Some people think this would be a failing of my doctor not to notice all these symptoms and put them together for me. I would say those are people who don’t understand how complex and perplexing MSIDs are. Part of my job is to help him by analyzing my symptoms and noticing patterns and unintended consequences, like taking medicines after the vaccine. Is it frustrating? Sure it is. But these kind of diseases are on the rise, so the model for patient-doctor-doctor-doctor relationships needs to change (I put a couple of extra doctors in there because Americans LOVE their specialists).

My bowler so far has been frustratingly competent, always knocking out a few pins. There have been no strikes, but there have been a few spares. It is inevitable that one day the bowler will roll a great, booming strike in my sleep—at least that’s what I hope. Because if I had my druthers, it would be when I am a ripe old age, after a fabulous meal. Some great sex would be nice, too, but then one can’t hope for too much.

 

 

 

 

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pot

Since I have been on the subject of herbs, I might as well talk about my favorite herb. I have a long and complicated relationship with marijuana. Sometimes she’s my bitch, and sometimes I am hers. Mostly it’s a solid, happy union that makes us both happy.  Since legalization, I’ve been able to choose what strains I want, much like going to a liquor store and deciding if I want tequila, rum, or scotch.

I smoked for the first time when I was twelve, with my brother and his friends, on a Tuesday night in Covington LA when my parents were attending the symphony. We stood in a circle in the driveway, and I remember that sense of being included with the older kids. It did nothing. The second time, I was thirteen, at the base of the dam at Evergreen Lake. It was fucking freezing, and the snow was deep. That time, I felt something, and I liked it.

Later that year I also had my first paranoid moment while high. We had smoked while caroling in Hiwan Hills. We ended the night at someone’s house on Meadow Drive, near Hiwan Ranch. Their parents had an open house night, and there was a nice spread of food. I remember feeling overwhelmed with the colors, the people, and the food. I didn’t want to talk to anyone, but I really wanted one of the rum balls. One of the grownups came up as I was reaching for my third or fourth one and started talking to me. I’ve never forgotten that moment of utter panic as I tried to form coherent answers to his questions.

Once I moved to Kingwood, I found a group of kids who liked to smoke and drink. I never smoked before or during school, nor did I smoke on school nights. On the weekends, I smoked whatever I could whenever I could. Here’s a fun fact: I never bought pot until 2014.  Another fun fact: I’ve never rolled a joint. In the  ’70s and ’80s provenance of supplying and preparing pot was a mostly male one. I’m sure some of my girl friends bought and rolled because they wanted to have it for themselves when they wanted it, but I was content to let boyfriends and other guys do all the work for the pleasure of my company (Ha! Totally doubtful, but I guess it worked).

It was when I went off to UT Austin that I really started smoking in earnest. My freshman year, I was high every single day except Christmas Day. Back then, what I was seeking was…I’m still not sure. Pot relaxes me, and shuts down the constant chatter in my mind. Kind of what alcohol does for a lot of people, but without the calories or hangover. I get horrible hangovers from not much alcohol.  After that crazy year (it was so much more than smoking pot. Things were consumed. Risks were taken. Stupidity ruled.) I worked to find balance. I went months, even years without smoking. I slowly gave up drinking. I cleaned up my lifestyle. When I went off to Bennington, I was an occasional drinker, and had decided not to smoke at all while in school.

Katie and most of my friends who smoke consider me an absolute flyweight when it comes to smoking pot. I say I smoked everyday, but that is one or two hits off of a pipe that wouldn’t even get most stoners a mild buzz. I don’t know if there is a term for being a cheap stoner, but I am one.

Then came Lyme. Fortunately for me, I had gotten a medicinal license back in 2009 and kept it up, more to make a political statement than any urgent need, other than an achy knee. After I got sick, I couldn’t sleep, everything ached, and I was depressed as hell. Katie took me to the dispensary and I got a daytime strain and a nighttime strain. They worked so well I never needed painkillers or sleeping pills. Of course, I was stoned 90% of the time, but I was sick 100% of the time during that period.

Right now, I am in a nonsmoking phase. It was too much trouble to worry about bringing anything to Arizona and I was feeling good. I have times where I wish I had some, but then I look at the map and see that I have to drive half-way across Tucson, and they only have eight strains, and the prices are astronomical so I decide I can wait. I may never go back. I may become an occasional smoker. I may smoke every day again. Like I said, we have a complicated relationship.

 

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Herbs

People are often amazed by how many herbs I use for Lyme treatment. Our medical community has done a fine job of discrediting the use of herbs to treat many illnesses effectively. I think people imagine me wandering down the aisles of Whole Foods or Natural Grocers, picking up things that will help me with little clue other than ‘I heard it might help’. I do buy herbs or supplements like this, especially for sleep, but not for Lyme. The fact is, any LLMD worth their salt will attack Lyme using many different methods, including herbs. Some herbs are better for one thing, and others are better for another. I buy the herbs I need through my LLMD. Usually, they are proven protocols cited by leading authorities in the field of Lyme, like Dr. Richard Horowitz, or Steven Buhner.

So when something flares up, we (this is not the royal we, Lyme patients have to be adept at describing what is happening) have to evaluate what strategy to use and why. It might be bartonella, or an opportunistic secondary infection, or a return of babesia. There are several possibilities and one medicine does not fit all.

Anyone who thinks herbs aren’t ‘real medicines’ needs to wake up. Aspirin, digoxin, quinine, and morphine are just a few drugs derived from herbs. It’s no wonder drug companies have an active interest in suppressing herbal medicine. I can see some people rolling their eyes, envisioning the very thought that herbs or supplements have any place in medical care. Fine. I don’t care. Trying to convince someone that this is not true is useless, as is trying to convince people who think all pharmaceuticals are bad, or ‘not natural’. To me, both positions show a profound unwillingness to place results over beliefs.

This is not new. It’s as old as the art of healing. With a complex disease like Lyme, the push and pull between science, traditional healing, and other factors like diet, exercise, and religion, leaves most Lyme sufferers with far too many options. The cost of treating Lyme means many patients don’t get proper treatment. Insurance usually doesn’t cover much more than 30-60 days of doxycycline.

This is compounded by the belief that illness and/or ill health is an option, that your lifestyle or lack of discipline is to blame for your illness. Not everyone believes this, but in wealthy countries like America, there are groups who frame illness and ill health as a failure to a) pray enough, or b) not exercise enough, or c) not take enough supplements, or d) not  have the right healthcare and/or not visit the doctor/get tested. There are probably a lot more subsets, but it is a strong system of ‘blaming the ill’.

But I digress. I am at a stage where I rely mostly on herbs. If I have a severe relapse, I’ll take whatever is recommended to get back to health. I’m not a snob. Nor am I a fool. Lyme support groups online are filled with ‘miracle cures’ and also with long, long sagas of literally dozens of tests, doctors, and medical treatments. I don’t have to go to the doctor every time I feel out of sorts, or have a new symptom. I won’t jump on the Rife machine bandwagon, or coffee enemas, or whatever someone has said worked for them. However, when dozens of other Lyme sufferers say there is something new that might work, I’ll ask my LLMD when I have an appointment. Dapsone is one such pharmaceutical that has made a huge different to some patients. Stevia is another one when it was found to be a biofilm buster.

It really is a lot of work staying current with treatments and protocols. I have biases. Maybe coffee enemas have helped some people. I’m just not a fan of any enemas, so I’m not going to try that one. You won’t ever find me praying to get better, but I don’t mind if people say they are praying for me. I actively avoid going to the doctor for the little things, and that a might come back and bite me in the butt someday. I’m willing to take some risks as a tradeoff, as are almost all ill people, because a life spent striving for perfect health might not be living at all.

It could be said I take a relaxed approach to my illness, if that makes sense. Obviously this isn’t always possible. One of the luxuries of Lyme (Haha, like there really are any) is that when it is controlled, it’s not likely to kill you, at least not for a long, long time. So I take my herbs, as I did this past week, when I had a flare up. The herbs caused a herx (Jarisch-Herxmeimer reaction, or ‘when the cure makes you feel like shit’) as I knew they would. They also made me feel better, as I hoped they would. When that happens, I wake up feeling better. The clouds part and the sun shines and all is right with the world once again.

I haven’t been hospitalized, nor have I used IV antibiotics. I feel well a good deal of the time. I have accepted that perhaps Lyme will be with me always. I use herbs and pharmaceuticals. Perhaps one day Western medicine will become more flexible about how to heal their patients. Until then, I’d say my choices have been right for me and I stand by them.

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vaccine

I got the Johnson & Johnson COVID vaccine this week. Surprisingly easy, except for the questions. “Have you had any COVID symptoms in the past week?” “Have you had muscle aches, fever, or fatigue in the past 24 hours?” Ummmm…yes? I’ve learned to lie when asked these kinds of questions. It’s not technically a lie, but the explanation of Lyme is too lengthy to go into. It’s more of an omission. I easily separate Lyme from the rest of my health history. If someone asks me if I’m healthy, I say ‘yes’, because I am healthy, aside from Lyme.

Most people my age are on some kind of prescription for something. Blood pressure, cholesterol, thyroid, etc. Not that they aren’t healthy, but they need a little help. So far, I have none of those problems. The ol’ colon is clean as a whistle, the boobs lump free, and no weird moles or skin things (thank you, birth mom for my genes, and real mom, for making me wear sunscreen). My blood pressure is always 116/72, my pulse is in the 50s, and my weight is still teetering a few pounds shy of ‘mildly obese’. So yeah, I consider myself healthy.

And yet, almost every day there is something that hurts or doesn’t feel right. The brain doesn’t fire properly or my throat hurts, or my joints, or my eyes are blurry and irritated. I’m fatigued, or my body aches. There are a ton of other minor problems that come and go, like death from a thousand paper cuts, but none of it is a big deal to me anymore. It just is. Once, while at an appointment with my Lyme doctor, I mentioned some things that had been bothering me. He said, “Why didn’t you call or go to your primary care doctor?” I answered, “Why bother? Almost everything that goes wrong is Lyme-related and disappears or changes.” He agreed with that, and I’ve learned that I’m the one that has to separate how I’m feeling. I use two categories: “Lyme-related” and “getting old.”

I suppose there is a third category, the “Oh shit” one, but so far, I’ve been out of that column since I burned my right hand six years ago (I think it was six years ago, but I just got my daughter’s age wrong, so I can’t truly be trusted with anything time and date related). The thing is, through Lyme I’ve learned that people tend to freak out about their health far more than I do. I haven’t gone to a primary care doctor since that burn, because I haven’t needed to. Virtually everything wrong with me is Lyme related.

As far as COVID goes, many of us Lyme patients have had to play the really fun game of “COVID or Lyme?” After all, the early symptoms for COVID and ongoing Lyme symptoms are virtually the same. I usually allow myself about five minutes to assess how I feel and then I wait to see if anything changes. It usually does, either within hours or days. The pain migrates, disappears, or morphs into another symptom that has nothing to do with COVID.

There is another dimension, the question of how vulnerable Lyme patients are to COVID. My immune system is compromised, but how vulnerable am I really?  I chose to stay safe and isolate myself rather than find out the answer to that question. And I chose to answer the pharmacists’ question as it pertained to COVID, not Lyme. The week before the vaccine, I had been experiencing some old symptoms that I knew well. I had already contacted my LLMD and gotten the answers I needed to begin treatment. I had no fever and I wore a mask. I know my body very, very well and had no doubt that what I was experiencing was not COVID. So I went and got the vaccine.

And after the vaccine, I don’t know if I had a reaction to the vaccine or if it was Lyme. I guess that part doesn’t really matter, since it wasn’t going to change the fact that I had gotten the vaccine. Now I have some measure of comfort that if I were to get it,  I won’t die, or have to go to the hospital. Those are big things, especially for the chronically ill. We are always on the edge of a health care crisis. They always cost money. The last thing I need is one more.

I’ll continue to separate my general health from Lyme. This paradigm has, oddly enough, motivated me to take the best care of myself so that I can so I can continue to brag that aside from Lyme, that “I’m very healthy.” Diet, exercise, and positive thinking are the only controllable factors I have. If Lyme is the reason I am staying healthy, then that is one of the positive aspects of chronic illness, and that, my friends, is positive thinking.

 

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guardian

I watch over myself like the guardian of a high-powered executive. Although the pay sucks and I’m anything but high-powered, I like to think I’m a pretty good gatekeeper. So I hoard my energy, get my rest, take the various drugs/herbs/supplements that are working at the moment, take care of the everyday tasks to be comfortable, and inspect myself endlessly. How am I feeling? Good so far? I’d better do the laundry, take a walk and write while I can. Still good? Great! I can go grocery shopping or keep studying Spanish.

Most days I lie down in the afternoon. Sometimes I take a nap. Other times I lay on my back and think. Sometimes I just play FreeCell for twenty minutes. Some days I don’t get up for hours. It all depends. And when it comes to a social life, I’m more like the harried chaperone of a future princess who would rather screw the stable boy (I know this is sexist and old-fashioned, but I can’t come up with anything better at the moment). Literally the only two people I will drop everything for are Dad and Katie. Everyone else will have to wait. Don’t fret, I don’t make people wait for long, unless I’m really sick and have turned off my phone and turned out the lights. Otherwise, at the very least I will text: Not feeling well. Talk to you later.

Needless to say, this looks a little hinky if you don’t understand what living with a chronic illness is like. It strains old friendships and puts a damper on new ones. But I’m the guardian of this body and mind for as long as I’m alive, so I have to be vigilant. And the one thing that gets my hackles up is when anyone thinks this is a choice. If by “choice” you mean conscious decisions to not expend energy that you don’t have so you don’t feel terrible, then yeah, it’s a choice.

The difficult part is acknowledging that some people require more of your energy than others. That’s good and bad. Sometimes the person works with you and you dread interactions because it is exhausting. I know plenty of people who feel that way about their parents. I have friends I love to be with, but we have so much fun that again, it can be exhausting. I don’t like this new habit of weighing every single activity and social interaction in units of exhaustion. The very act of sifting through all of this takes energy.

That’s another thing that’s hard to explain. From an outsider’s perspective, it looks like I’m doing fine. “Well, you took a walk this morning and attended a Zoom class, and you don’t look sick” means that I am doing a great job managing my energy. What they don’t see is all the things I didn’t do so I could do those two things.

One of the many ways Lyme sucks the energy right out of you is through social interaction. Texting is great. Emails are great. Talking on the phone is problematic, depending on how I feel and who it is. Zoom calls and classes are stimulating and tiring. Seeing people is always exhausting and I have to weigh what else is going on in my life before I commit to anything. If I have to go grocery shopping and then see a friend for lunch, it is near impossible to see people later, unless I’m looking forward to doing nothing for a few days.

I fight with myself a lot, the guardian clashing constantly with the part of my brain that wants to do whatever it wants. ‘Go ahead,’ it says, ‘eat that gluten-filled pizza/swim another 500 yards/go see that friend/take another writing class/go out late with friends/quit being such a BABY’.  The guardian steps in and reminds me that this might not end well. Sometimes I simply don’t have a choice, it is something that I must do, like travel between Tucson and Denver, or go to the doctor. Then I make sure I have blocked off plenty of time before and after to rest.

This strategy means that currently I am more well than sick, the relapses farther apart and less severe, the recoveries, if not easier, more bearable. This is good, right? Mostly, except when well-meaning people comment that ‘now I can get back to normal.’ It used to vex me, too, this idea that I’m doing so well I can go back to how it was before. But that’s the whole fucking point! This is my normal now. I will always be forced to plug any activity into the energy formula. If I don’t mind anymore, why does it bother other people so much?

I would argue that it is precisely this energy output strategy that has led me to my current state. The tougher my guardian is and the more time I spend taking care of myself, the better I feel. Now that I have given my guardian full control, taking care of me first has become easier. I still argue with her. However, I know my guardian is the one I have to respect. She is one mean bitch, but she always has my best interests at heart.

 

 

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